Magherafelt show composure to continue winning run
O’Neills Derry SFC Group C: O’Donovan Rossa, Magherafelt 1-11 Ballinderry Shamrocks 0-6
IF you need a mark of where Magherafelt are at, this was their 14th consecutive championship win within Derry across senior, reserve and U21 football.
The reigning champions picked off old rivals Ballinderry with a very mature, composed second-half performance that squeezed at the pressure points in their visitors’ gameplan.
The Shamrocks are not a team renowned for playing defensive football but their setup on the bigger back pitch in Rossa Park was perhaps a measure of what they’ve lost as an attacking force.
A wealth of attacking talent has retired in recent years – Muldoon, Gilligan, Devlin, Conway, et al - and with key goal threat Daniel McKinless on the injured list for the year, their threadbare options meant brothers Niall and James Conway had little option other than try and keep the game low-scoring.
For 30 minutes, it was hugely successful.
Raymond Wilkinson and Kevin McGuckin, their two eldest players, sat in as the double-sweepers and picked off each attempt to forge a way down the middle.
Ballinderry forced them to the wings and to kick from distance. Ball after ball dropped wide or into Ben McKinless’s hands. At the end of the first quarter, the sides were locked at 0-3 apiece.
Conor Kearns’s fine effort and a free each from the Heavron brothers, Danny and Shane, pushed Magherafelt 0-3 to 0-1 ahead but Gareth McKinless showed the threat he can carry from centre-forward with a fine score before Raymond Wilson’s overlap helped set Ryan Bell free to equalise.
By that stage, Adrian Cush was pleading with his forwards to keep their width and stretch the Ballinderry cover, but even the water break failed to make any significant difference.
They did leave Emmett McGuckin in on his own thereafter against Connor Nevin, but Magherafelt’s commitment to the attack was far greater.
Ballinderry literally kept a pivot at centre-forward and Caolan Mallaghan inside all alone, where he ran willingly but just didn’t provide the scoring threat they needed to win the game.
Gareth McKinless moved briefly into the edge of the square, something Ballinderry might consider doing more often for their remaining games, and won a free that Ryan Bell swung over to nose them 0-4 to 0-3 in front.
At that stage, the game was being played almost entirely on their terms.
And then the black card happened.
Declan Bell was lined for what looked an incidental foul on Darren O’Neill, who would later be black-carded himself for a coming-together with McKinless.
Niall Conway said it was “harsh enough, and it didn’t help us”, while Magherafelt assistant Paul Quinn admitted he felt the same, albeit his opinion over the impact it had on the game was different.
While Conway felt that Magherafelt took advantage to blow the chains off, the Rossas’ boss argued that half-time had allowed them to sort a lot out.
Comparing it to a later black card for their own full-back Darren O’Neill, Quinn said: “They maybe evened each other up, but maybe theirs was at a more crucial time. I don’t think the referee won or lost the game for anybody today.”
Magherafelt were 0-4 to 0-3 down when Bell went off, and 0-8 to 0-4 up when he came back on.
“It was hard for both teams to get scores in that first half, it was more tactical and both teams found it hard to adapt to,” said Conway.
“It was cagey. I just felt the game opened up for Magherafelt when they took advantage of the 15v14, that was the period that killed us in that game.
“I’ll take a lot of stuff out of that game. Take the last 15 minutes out of it, Magherafelt were probably content what they were doing in that last 15, but I thought we competed… I’m proud of the lads, I’m very content with their performance for 40 minutes there.”
Once Magherafelt, through Connor Kearns and Shane Heavron (two) pushed four ahead, the entire complexion of the game changed.
Ballinderry’s containment-first approach became redundant. The red shirts, in a scene reminiscent of their infamous game with Slaughtneil a few years ago, started to just move the ball around their own half and wait for Ballinderry to come out.
The shoe was on the other foot and while it might have been terrible viewing, this was a sign of the composure and maturity Magherafelt have gained over the last two years.
The call came for Ballinderry to push up at 0-9 to 0-5, just as O’Neill received his black card. It seemed like their opportunity to get back in the game but they never really went full after it, and Ryan Bell’s free from the foul that saw O’Neill lined was their only score until the 58th minute.
By that time, it had been put to bed by Peter Quinn’s goal.
In his first game back since transferring home from Thomas Davis in Dublin, whom he helped to a county final last year, he fed off Emmett McGuckin’s beautiful dummy to fire past Ben McKinless just after the second water-break.
Quinn is one of three returnees that have made the county champions even stronger than last year. Ryan Ferris, who briefly played for Derry at a stage, has come back from Ballymaguigan, while Michael McEvoy’s rehabilitation from a cruciate ligament injury would have been completed only for a tweaked hamstring.
It wasn’t swashbuckling stuff, but champions know how to win ugly too.
Magherafelt: O Lynch; P Quinn (1-0), D O’Neill; G Lupari; C McCluskey, F Duffin, C Kearns (0-2); J Monaghan, D Heavron (0-3, 0-1 free); P McLarnon, S Heavron (0-5, 0-4 frees), R Ferris, J Young; E McGuckin (0-1), C Murphy
Subs: S McErlain for Lupari (42), A McElhone for Murphy (46), D Martin for McLarnon (47), M Higgins for D O’Neill (53), J Keenan for Kearns (54)
Black card: D O’Neill (42-52)
Yellow cards: S Heavron (15)
Ballinderry: B McKinless; E Wilson, C Nevin, D Bell; K McGuckin, R Wilkinson; A Mullan, O Duffin, R Wilson; C Murphy, R Bell (0-5, 0-4 frees); C O’Neill, G McKinless (0-1), R O’Neill; C Mallaghan
Subs: R Scott for Murphy (43), E Devlin for Mallaghan (48), M Quinn for R O’Neill (52), D Lawn for A Mullan (52)
Black card: D Bell (24-34)
Yellow cards: G McKinless (25), O Duffin (37)
Referee: B Cassidy (Bellaghy)